Mary, I Didn’t Know

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To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. — Genesis 3:16

In 5th grade, all the guys were led into a classroom down the hall, where we were taught some sterilized version of the facts of life.  The girls had their own lecture.  If I remember correctly, their conversation lasted longer than ours did.

I remember rejoining some of my female friends, and seeing a strange look in their eyes. They all seemed to have aged a year or so in maturity.  I wondered if they had been told different facts than we had.

Indeed, they had.  More than just the rough outline of Male/Female sexuality, they were learning about pain.  The monthly ordeal of menstruation, the excruciating process of childbirth.  I don’t know if any time was given to the discussion of other forms of pain for women — objectification, harassment, abuse.  Somehow I doubt it.

I had no clue.  I knew of none of this, and wouldn’t for years.  Some of it, I’m still learning.

Last week, for instance, I sat with my senior high Sunday School youth at the coffee shop and asked what was meant to be a throwaway question, “The angels said ‘be not afraid’.  What’s your biggest fear?”

One of the young women said, without irony, “I’m afraid of men.”  The other two quickly agreed.  They began to share with me and the other young men there, how difficult it is for them to be out, anywhere, by themselves.  I don’t know what it was about this unexpectedly frank conversation, but as they each gave real world examples of how scary and painful it can be living as a young woman in this world, it occurred to me…

That little wood-carved figure of Mary, there on my coffee table nativity set, is going through some stuff I simply can’t imagine.

Not only do I have next to no concept of what it means to be a young woman in our world today, I am utterly clueless of what that young girl in her teens must be enduring on Christmas Eve.

Having a baby is a big deal.  Having a baby in a cattle stall, with only (I’m guessing) a pretty clueless husband to assist must have been terrifying.  I can only imagine such physical pain coinciding with great joy!

I’m aware there are many women in the world whose pregnancies aren’t successful, due to complications, or lack of assistance, or poor sanitation. Wow. More pain that I can hardly fathom.

I’m reminded of Adam and Eve, expelled from the Garden of Eden.  There were consequences to their disobedience, and one of them was that childbirth would bring pain. I’ll be honest, I haven’t thought much about it before.  The literal pain alongside the joy of Christmas.

I tend to think that God is not inflicting these punishments, but that they are natural consequences for us choosing to live in the harshness of the world.

Regardless, I feel that Eve got the worse end of the deal, compared to Adam.  As did Mary, with Joseph.  As I’ve come to believe more and more, women in general face pain that men aren’t always aware of.

This is not a pity party for the ladies. It’s closer to a celebration of the strong and faithful women I have known in my life, who may have had to struggle more than I know just to celebrate Christmas this year.

In the least, I’m aware that the mother of my Savior deserves some gratefulness on my part.  I’m guessing the same is true for all the other women in my life.

It’s not much, but I wanted to say, on behalf of my 5th grade clueless self, and my 50-year-old slightly less clueless self…

I was thinking of you this Christmas.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Mitch

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If This Were Your Last Christmas

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Last week, my wife Jan and I drove to Wichita to watch one of our favorite movies on the big screen:  A special 75th anniversary showing of “Meet Me In Saint Louis”.

It’s a delightful film that we watch every Christmas.  The film takes place over the course of several months, but the climax occurs on Christmas Eve, when Judy Garland sings the immortal song, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”.

The lyrics begin:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be bright

It’s beautiful, but do you know what the original lyrics were, before Judy threw a fit to have them changed?

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last

It may be your last???  Can you imagine such a sentiment in such a joyful film?  And what if it were true? Picture loud speakers blaring, “Breaking News! This may be your last Christmas. Proceed accordingly.”

How would you respond?

If someone told me I’d have no more Christmas in my life, I’d be more sad than anything.  No more presents?  No more family gatherings?  No more candle light service? These things are supposed to be forever!

Well hang on.  Do you know there was a time when Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas?  Like the first 300 years after Jesus death! That’s right.  The celebration of this holiday did not exist until Pope Julius made it a holiday in 350CE.

And I’m sure you know that December 25th is not actually the day Jesus was born.  The date was probably picked to coincide with other festivals occurring around the winter solstice.  Some say Jesus was born in the Spring, but who really knows?

And although gift-giving has been associated with Christmas at various times down through history, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that present exchanges began to resemble what we do today.  Similarly, Christmas Carols evolved down through the ages before many of the songs we sing began to take shape in the 1800s.

Each of these components had a “first”, back in history, and they may also face a “last” some day in the future, but none of these pieces add up to Christmas.  If we lost every present, or cookie, or party, or even the date on a calendar, none of these could signal a “last” Christmas.

The thought behind those “It may be your last” lyrics may actually be towards the “Merry” part of “Merry Christmas”.  It may be a suggestion that you’ll have future Christmases, just not  “Merry” ones. Perish the thought!

No, really!  Perish that thought — let it die right where it stands.  Christmas — and especially a Merry Christmas — requires so little of us it’s almost effortless to achieve.  Christmas requires Christ.  Christmas is merely a reminder of an all encompassing, eternal gift Christ has already given.  It’s ours for the taking; we need only be open to receive it.

At the heart of Christmas is the one gift that truly keeps on giving.

So bake your cookies with abandon.  Sing those carols — out of key is perfectly acceptable.  Hug your loved ones, and wave at your neighbors.  Every year the celebration changes some, and that’s a beautiful part of life.

But enjoy Christmas without fear of losing it.  You already have it to keep and to share.  Christ is warming your heart even now as you trim your tree, or wrap your gifts…

and don’t forget to enjoy the Garland.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Top 10 Essential Apps For Christmas

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Looking for something exciting, challenging, and helpful to take you all the way to December 25th?  Look no further.

We’ve assembled our TOP 10 Essential App List for Christmas this year.  Try these out and we promise you won’t utter a single “Bah Humbug” all season!

HERE WE GO!

10. APPROACH:  You’ll never make it to the manger if you’re not willing to move.  Spend some time in prayer remembering what Christmas is all about, and then get in gear.  Even as you approach Jesus, Jesus is approaching you.

9. APPREHENSIVE:  This is not a relaxing weekend in Branson.  It’s a life-changing adventure filled with risks, unknowns, and even a little uncertainty.  Hearing the Christmas story should shake you up a little. It’s a good thing to be a little apprehensive.

8. APPETITE:  Cookies and Presents can bring great joy.  They can also bring gluttony and greed!  Be intentional about what you should be craving.  Love, Peace, Hope, and Joy are present in abundance.  Here’s to having a healthy appetite.

7 APPRECIATE.  The sky on Christmas Eve always inspires me, if I remember to look up.  Being with my relatives is fun, if I have the right attitude.  The Miracle of Jesus gives me chills, if I truly listen to the stories.  There’s so much going on that you might miss the whole point of Christmas, unless you focus your heart to appreciate the heart of it.

6. APPRENTICE:  We celebrate two Christmases each year, the cultural one and the Christian one.  Both can be fun and exciting, but it is the Christian experience of Jesus’ birth that can nourish us our whole lives long.  There are young people (and some older ones too) who may only learn this version of the story if you apprentice them.

5.  APPROXIMATELY.   Don’t worship a well-wrapped present or a beautifully set table, when the sole source of perfection is cooing from the manger.  As for everything else?  Approximately good is good enough.

4. APPLAUD.   Children’s programs at church.  Concerts around town.  Carolers at your front door.  Joy is contagious, and the hard work of those who step up front to share their offering can ignite in us a passion we might otherwise have been missing.  Find reasons to applaud this year, especially for the Greatest Story Ever Told.

3.  APPROVE.  What if you gave Christmas five stars on Yelp and shared an amazing review with everyone you know? Christmas doesn’t require your approval, but the Good News spreads all the faster when you make your two-thumbs-up shown.

2.  APPEAR.  The incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us, is more amazing than a magic trick. Don’t look away, and don’t minimize the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

1.  APPLY.  What are some of the most important life lessons you’ve learned from Christmas?  The joy of giving.  Peace on Earth, good will to all.  Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!  Christmas is supposed to change us, to inspire us all year round.  How will you apply what you’ve learned?

There you have it!  Our Top 10 APPS for Christmas.  Keep in mind — just because they’re free, doesn’t mean they’re not high quality.  Best of all, I’m allowed to offer them right here!

Who needs an actual APP store?

Well, Apple might be appalled to see this page approvingly appreciated.

Have a Great Week,

Mitch

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Would You Hire This Advance Man?

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He’s rugged.  He’s wild.  He’s likes to dunk people in the water.

He is, of course, John the Baptist.

This, THIS is the best Jesus could do for an advance man?  A big scary looking dude wearing a shirt made of camel’s hair? A guy who lives out in the wilderness, and munches on locusts???

In a word, he’s scary.  Right?  Bordering on dangerous.   Would you let your kids head outside of town to play with Sasquatch?  Or Grizzly Adams?  Or Hagrid?  (Okay, that last one might be kind of cool).

It’s hard to comprehend a WORSE person to pave the way for Jesus’ coming.  I mean, wouldn’t you want someone more approachable for such a job?  Somebody with decent grooming skills?  Somebody with a good sales pitch worth listening to?

Oh wait.  John may not have worn a slick suit and $200 loafers, but he had an incredible sales pitch:

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark 1:7-8

Here’s this powerful wilderness man speaking about somebody even more outside-the-norm who is coming.  Somebody more powerful, more connected.  In other words, John says, “If you think I’m wild, just wait.”

Perhaps it was John’s unlikely appearance that actually appealed to people.  Or perhaps they thought they saw a resemblance to Elijah.  Or perhaps he looked less imposing standing up to his waste in the water.

John wasn’t just ranting, out there on the outskirts of town.  What he called people to was down right sacramental. The baptism he provided offered hope in ways people were deeply aching for.  A new start.  Forgiveness.  A personal connection with God.  John offered these things people were desperate for, using a method and a locale that took them far outside their normal lives.

Heck, he was such a good advance man that the person he was barking about, Jesus, actually showed up for a dunk in the river, too.  If that’s not validation, I don’t know what is.

So here’s the thing.  You and I tend to sanitize Christmas.  Just take a look at the nativity scene set up in your house, and you probably won’t see a Grizzly Adams-looking figure stuck there between the shepherds and the kings.

But John is as much a part of the Christmas story as any of those other figures.  He represents the break from the status quo.  He reminds us that the beginning of a new story can and should be a little scary.

But if John gives you pause, that’s just to get your attention.  There’s no need to retreat in fear.

He’s the advance man, after all, and he’s all about hope.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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31 Santas

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We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. –Hebrews 6:1

I’m running a B & B for Santa Clauses. Or a detention center.  I’m not sure.

Out in my cold garage, all wrapped up and nestled on shelves, lie 31 Santa Claus figures.  A burly outdoorsy Santa carrying a tree over his shoulder. A mystical wizard-looking Santa in a robe.  Short, hand painted wooden figurines.  Tall, spindly abstract Santas.

31 of them!

We’ve gathered them over a few decades, but the last couple years it hasn’t seemed worth it to set them all up.  We’ve kept things simpler.  A tree, a manger scene, and that’s about it.

But those Santas…

At night, I can hear them muttering to one another, out in the garage.  They’re restless.  Most of the year they’re content to slumber away, but not in December.

The outdoorsy Santa says:  “If they’d let us out of here we could at least ring the salvation army bells somewhere.”

“Yeah,” an old fashioned looking Santa replies.  “If we went to 31 different locations, think how much change we’d collect!”

“Or,” the mystical looking Santa says, “We could go to 31 different churches and increase everybody’s attendance by one!”

“Maybe,” a gnome-like Santa says, “but I think we could make more of a difference if we all impersonated yard gnomes and made sure nobody stole packages off people’s porches!”

“I mean,” the tall spindly Santa says, “if they’re not going to use us, they could at least give us away to someone else.  Tis the season of giving, right?”

I heard a lot of agreement with that.  He was right. So I got up out of bed, stepped into the cold garage, unboxed each Santa…

And set them free.  They scurried off into the night to do what Santa’s do best.

I spotted the outdoorsy one today, escorting an old man across the street.  The mystical one was at the coffee shop, having a deep theological discussion about the Incarnation.  And I caught a glimpse of three or four at the thrift store, passing out gifts.

I was a little sorry to see them go, but more than anything, I was thinking about why I had collected them in the first place.  To me, Santa is a human attempt to reflect the divine impulse of giving.  Santa reminds us that humans can give grace.  We were made in the image of God, and blessed by the Grace of Jesus. Santa knows this.

Santa isn’t the manager of a toy factory.  Santa is one of the “Saints”, devoting himself to a lifetime of thanks to God by giving to God’s children.  As I, too, should be.

This morning, I walked out to my empty garage, and grinned.

I was ready to be…

Number 32.

Have a Merry Christmas!

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Christmas is for adults, too.

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Everybody always says, “Christmas is for Children.”

Been there, done that.  It was great.

However…

I’d like to raise a few points on behalf of those who find themselves with a few gray hairs.  Or a lot of them.

Christmas is no less magical or profound or sweet or challenging now than it was when we were whippersnappers.

In fact, it may even be better.

Let’s talk about Hope:  I must confess I’ve done my time on the Island of Misfit Toys.  Feeling broken. Not sure where I belonged. But I’ve learned that everyone gets broken.  Everyone feels like a misfit from time to time.  It is the coming of Christ that gives our lives meaning and purpose.  Now I know what it really means to have HOPE!

Let’s talk about Love:  I’ve learned that there is no perfect present underneath the tree.  Hard as we might try, we can’t fit love in a box.  There’s only one gift that truly satisfies to that extent.  It is the gift that God gave to us, so that we might pass it on.  Now I know what it really means to have (and give) LOVE!

Let’s talk about Peace:  Every year I find myself saying, “has the world ever been this bad?”  My attentiveness to the suffering around me has developed, but so has my faith and resolve.  I believe there is no turmoil that the Prince of Peace cannot transform, and I want to help.  Now I know how to look for signs of PEACE!

Let’s talk about Joy:  Whereas once a gadget or a toy would make me giddy, now joy strikes me much more deeply. It is in the presence of family and friends.  In witnessing simple acts of grace.  In the Christmas story.  More than just the excitement of a season, I am reminded of what God With Us truly means both now, and the whole year round.  Now I know the ongoing thrill of JOY!

Oh, I’d never take back all those wondrous Christmases I spent as a child.

But I’m surprised to report that the Christmas miracle keeps on getting clearer,

…even as I keep getting grayer.

Merry Christmas.

Mitch

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originally published 12/14, revised 12/18

Sunday, 12/16/18 2-4pm at Jane’s Landing Coffee Shop in Mulvane KS — BOOKSIGNING PARTY!  Come drop by!

MY NEW BOOK!  A collection of my favorite devotions from over the years, complete with study questions.  Perfect for individual reflection or group discussion.  Get yours today!

barefoot.: devotions & discussions by Rev. Mitch Todd Paperback

 

“Can You Play?”

 

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“The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” -Zechariah 8:5

It was Saturday afternoon at the church, on the cusp of Advent, and I was working.

Kylie (our awesome children’s director) had recruited some volunteers to offer free babysitting just to give parents a few hours of kid-free time.  Judging this to be a noble task, I signed on to help.

We had watched a movie, and done a variety of crafts, and now, with an hour to go, Kylie and I filed the older kids into the gym for some running around time.

I found a chair and sat down.

Kylie began leading the kids through one form of tag after another.  Freeze tag.  Sharks and minnows.  Stay-on-the-line tag. (There are a lot more versions of tag than I remembered)

I watched as calories were burned and a good time was mostly had by all.  Then it happened. One of the girls, a third grader, was getting things organized for yet another version of running and catching.  She looked at me and said the words:

“Can you play?”

I had been sitting on my rump for an hour, never even considering joining in.  Her words literally stunned me.

I jumped to my feet and stammered, “Yes…I can play…”  At that very moment Kylie called out that it was time for the kids to meet up with their parents.

What a strange moment for me.  I had been invited (called out) to play, and now I was saved by the clock.  Half of me felt like I’d dodged a bullet.  The other half felt…old.  And not the good kind of old.  The kind of old that looks at the past wistfully, wondering what’s become of me.

CAN I play? I play an occasional video game.  Does that count?  I walk my dog.  I watch Netflix.  Wow. I used to play instinctively.  With wild abandon.  Have I lost this spark of my humanity? I certainly hope not, but I may admittedly be a little rusty.

Which brings me to Advent.  In honor of this little encounter, and in spite of all the work I have on my plate these next weeks, I have decided to honor the coming Christ the way a child might.  These are the ways I aim to play this Advent:

  1.  Play a board game.  Monopoly, Boggle, Trivial Pursuit.  I’ve got all those in a closet somewhere.
  2. Play Santa.  I aim to give gifts that aren’t just check marks on a list.  I want to feel that thrill of giving — Fewer gift cards…more toys!
  3. Play with Tom.  Tom is my doggie.  He ALWAYS wants to play, but most of the time I give him a treat to distract him.  I plan to get down on the floor and rough house.
  4. Play with kids.  I will joke and tease with the kids at my church, but if I want to recapture Christmas through their eyes, I’ll need to listen to them, learn from them, and get up off my rump, wiling to burn a few calories!
  5. Play with my imagination.  I used to be so good at this!  Bringing a drawing or a story into the world.  You know, Making believe is actually a good way for Making Believers! So today I’ll pretend to be a shepherd.  Tomorrow I’ll do my best to be an angel.

That’s my list, for now.  Do you have one?  While making a list seems counter to the whole spontaneous notion of play, in this case I hope it serves as a good reminder.

Yes! I CAN play. May that never change.  To see Christmas as the twinkle in the eye of the creator takes more effort for some of us than others, but it’s always worth it.  Besides, I’ve received an official invitation to try, from a real live young person.

Let me extend that invitation to you.  Can you play?  Do you want to try with me?

Good.

Tag, you’re it.

Have a great Advent,

Mitch

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MY NEW BOOK!  A collection of my favorite devotions from over the years, complete with study questions.  Perfect for individual reflection or group discussion.  Get yours today!

barefoot.: devotions & discussions by Rev. Mitch Todd Paperback